Hong Kong airline asks workers to take three-week unpaid leave in midst of coronavirus

A Hong Kong-based airline asked 27,000 employees Wednesday to take three weeks of unpaid leave to lessen the economic impact from the coronavirus that has engulfed mainland China.

Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Augustus Tang's request in a video message comes as the airline has suspended more than 90 percent of its flights to China amid the outbreak, which has killed nearly 500 people and sickened more than 24,000.

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"I am appealing to each and every one of you to help," he said. “Preserving our cash is now the key to protecting our business. All of us need to respond to this rapidly changing and challenging environment.”

Employees will be given the option to take their leave from March 1 to June 30, Tang said. He also asked senior leaders to participate. He did not say whether he would take leave himself.

He also asked suppliers to cut prices, implement hiring freezes, postpone major projects and halt all non-critical spending. The airline implemented a similar unpaid leave program in 2009 during the global financial crisis, and during the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in which hundreds died.

In the video, Tang said the Lunar New Year -- one of the airline's most profitable seasons -- was "one of the most difficult... we have ever had." The holiday was extended amid the rising death toll from the coronavirus, prompting many to stay home.

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An unnamed Cathay Pacific flight attendant told the South China Morning Post that the leave scheme was reasonable but called for the airline to compensate workers when business rebounds.

The request comes as multiple airlines around the world have suspended flight operations to China.